Thursday, January 28, 2010

Top 10 of 2009 (Finally)

The Year of the Woman? Isn’t every year allegedly the Year of the Woman? Nonetheless, my essentially interchangeable top two films are both from female directors – Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion – who have established reputations for talent and inconsistency. It is wonderful to see them both hit the top of their games at the same time.

1. Bright Star – Jane Campion’s love story of the poet John Keats told through the eyes of his fiancĂ©e Fanny Brawne, Bright Star is a film that works emotionally on the surface level and intellectually on deeper levels. In the old days, we used to call that a masterpiece. Set in 19th Century England, the film’s restrained love story is unusually moving. However, Bright Star is more – a contemplation on the force of beauty in the world. Aided by stunning cinematography and production design, as well as head-turning performances from Abbie Cornish and Paul Schneider, Campion’s direction is gently assured; you wonder if other directors watch this film and wonder if they’re working hard enough.

2. The Hurt Locker –It’s rare that you find a film that takes a spent genre and re-wires it for modernity. Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film eliminates decades of “Army of Victims” assumptions and rewires the war film for a modern professional military. The Hurt Locker confounds the accepted liberal post-Vietnam wisdom by presenting a demolition expert – simultaneo1usly professionally focused and divinely insane - who lives for war and couldn’t live without it (a great Jeremy Renner). While the film is one tense wartime set piece after another, it’s that quietly shocking five minutes on the homefront that seems to stick out in everyone’s mind.

3. Thirst- Vampire films are tales of male predation upon women. Films noirs are stories of female predation upon men. Put them together and apparently you get a fantastic vampire screwball finale in Chan Wook-Park’s mucho bloody, darkly funny morality tale.

4. The Road – I don’t understand the critical hesitation to accept The Road. There seems to be a thought that it is too bleak or that the book does not translate well to screen. What I saw was a tender father-son story in a post-apocalyptic imaginative space that re-inforces the timelessness of love and morality. Even in humanity’s worst moments, we have the choice to love and to do the right thing. Fantastic performances from Viggo Mortensen and the youngster Kodi Smit-McPhee, as well as Charlize Theron’s great five minutes.

5. A Serious Man - The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is the most intellectually challenging major American release of the year. It's too bad that it's only half-enjoyable to watch. Nonetheless, the brothers re-imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey as a Jewish-American domestic black comedy. The film contemplates the ways that both fables and rationalism fall short in understanding the mind of God.

6. Inglourious Basterds - All the endless discussion of Quentin Tarantino, The Director, misses his true great contribution to film history - liberating screen dialogue. In the Pulp Fiction era, Tarantino was superb at writing lines primarily in that one familiar Tarantino voice. The World War II dazzler Inglourious Basterds finds him writing great lines in multiple voices, multiple styles, and multiple languages.

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox - Some view Wes Anderson's animated outing as a return to form. I never thought he ever lost form. I just think of it as another terrific outing. Glad to hear nice things being said about him again, though.

8. The Brothers Bloom - One wag memorably described Rian Johnson's quirky con man film as "The Sting directed by Hal Ashby." Actually, this mix of con man picture and anachronistic screwball comedy is better described as The Lady Eve directed by Hal Ashby. Rachel Weisz dominates as the reclusive innocent Penelope Stamp, a cross between a Katharine Hepburn screwball heiress and Being There's childlike hero Chauncey Gardiner. A smart post-modern sensibility permeates, giving us the brilliant bit of wisdom, “The ultimate con is to tell a lie so well that it becomes the truth.”

9. Adventureland - Greg Mottola upped the ante on the Apatow comedy with this late eighties summertime memoir set in an amusement park in the last rung of Hell. Nostalgic and tender where others are coarse and cynical. Too bad everyone’s forgotten Ryan Reynolds in this.

10. Public Enemies - Michael Mann's take on the short, brilliant bank robbing life of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), bathed with a death wish and a taste for fame. A throwback crime film in which the crook is a one-man last stand of romantic American individualism, as both law and crime advance to a more corporate and technological condition. A film that starts slow and gets better and better as it goes along.

Free Admission Granted on some of these

Extraordinary Measures

Extraordinary Measures
Grade: C
Cast: Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser, Keri Russell
Director: Terry Vaughan
Free Admission Granted

Things to like about Extraordinary Measures, with clinical researcher Harrison Ford and father/businessman Brendan Fraser joining forces to save Fraser’s children from a deadly form of muscular distrophy:

1) It’s relatively adult.
2) It treats its subject seriously.
3) It treats its subject carefully.
4) Based on a true story, it doesn’t much Hollywood-up its ending.
5) For a disease-of-the-week flick, it’s fairly spare on the mawkishness.
6) It rolls out the sick kids more for soft humor than to tug the heart strings.
7) It chooses a rare subject, work. Don’t we all go to the movies to watch what we do every day?
8) It’s actually interesting, for me anyway, to watch the details of medical research and see how they play as drama. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch the quiet explosiveness of cost-benefit analysis of medications for orphan diseases?
9) It’s a story of two men doing nothing more “dramatic” than bonding over a common goal.
10) It gives a realistic portrait of starting up a business and keeping it going. In fact, this makes up some of the more compelling moments in the film.
11) Therefore it tends to use natural drama, rather than manufactured drama, to propel its story.
12) It gives Harrison Ford something to do, even if it is a bit grumpily over the top. You half expect him to utter, “Dammit, I’m a doctor, Jim.” And no, we don’t want to watch him run wind sprints ever again.

And still even with these positives, could I look you in the eye and tell you to spend money to go see it? That’s what this comes down to, right? No, no, not really.

Produced by newcomer CBS Films, which is exactly what it sounds like it is, the film looks like it was shot on rejected sets for CSI on mid-80s film stock left over from the vaults of Knots Landing. The product never escapes its television movie tendencies.

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones
Grade: D
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rachel Weisz
Director: Peter Jackson
Free Admission Granted

Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones accomplishes one thing that’s hard to do.

I’ve never seen a film in which the foreboding sounds of inanimate objects cause such an emotional stir while the allegedly animate actors cause almost none.

In his adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel about a child murder, Jackson’s film does pretty well in re-creating the sights and sounds of 1973, capturing that Lynch-ian fraudulent suburban paradise with the depraved desires lurking underneath. And yet for all of its indulgence in graphic situations, you never get that disturbed jolt. The movie’s narrator isn’t the only thing that’s dead.

The gimmick of The Lovely Bones is that it is narrated by the dead child, Susie Salmon (whom Saoirse Ronan at least keeps her from also being a dead fish), from a halfway point to Heaven that bears considerable resemblance to Candyland or an endless screensaver. There, she watches her murderer and family from above, and soapily longs for the boy she longed to kiss. Having been brutally killed, these digs aren’t too bad. Child murder has never looked so inviting.
The tone of the film swings wildly among horror film, domestic melodrama, Twilight-y romance, and cheesy comedy. At times it is deadly serious. At other times, deadly ludicrous. This culminates in Stanley Tucci’s murderer. Under dorky windbreakers and a ridiculous sandy mustache, the effect is more comedy than horror. It’s hard to be too creeped out when the epitome of evil appears too much like a Carol Burnett skit character, to make a nice seventies reference.

The film seems to have little to say and exists only to bathe in (un-)emotional pornography. That is until the end, when it suddenly advises against vengeance and tells everyone that we should chill out and Zen-like move on from the tragedy. Then it reverses course and grants the audience’s desire for the bad guy to get it. There’s nothing worse than a movie that can’t take its own advice.

Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt
Grade: B
Cast: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta
Director: Miguel Arteta
Free Admission Granted

…. And so once again we join Michael Cera in progress as he tries to lose his virginity ….
Does this sound like the plot of every Michael Cera film? I mean, at least in Juno, he got it over with real quick-like. In Youth in Revolt, it doesn’t come so easily. But at least it is, surprisingly, darn funny, if silly as hell. You must wonder why the Weinsteins would wait to stash this in the January dump period.

With a loser mother (Jean Smart), a loser father (Steve Buscemi), a loser mom’s boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) and …. well, a loser life, Cera’s over-intellectual teen-ager Nick Twisp is floating through high school without hope of a lay. When they head for the hills – or rather the trailer park – to keep mom’s loser boyfriend from getting a good beatdown, he meets the French-film-loving girl of his dreams (Portia Doubleday), until fate separates them.

The film goofs on Cera’s awkward image by pairing him with a more confident (and more French) alter ego. The alter ego – a perfectly foul-mouthed, mirrored-sunglassed psychopath, by his own description – instructs his innocent formal self in arson and other acts of delinquency, all in a plot (that I couldn’t explain if I wanted to) to re-unite him with the momentary love of his 16-year-old life. From there Youth in Revolt gets less and less probable and more and more humorous.

Director Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck)simultaneously mocks and tries to achieve the spirit of the New Wave and other restless youth films of the sixties. It doesn’t rise to the level of appreciation or success of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore in that category, but it could be worse. The plot is silly, the humor is broad but clever. That means it had better make you laugh or fail. Haha. Ha haha ha.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon
Grade: No Rating
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ulrich Turkel, Burghart Klausner
Director: Michael Haneke
Free Admission Granted

Misanthropy can be a powerful tool in the chest of a filmmaker.

Few are as misanthropic as the German filmmaker Michael Haneke, and The White Ribbon might be the bleakest film that you will see in a long time. Reviling humanity isn’t a crime. It just tastes better with a little cube of humor. For all of its stunning filmmaking, The White Ribbon is misanthropy without the charm.

Inspecting the psychological dynamics of a small German village on the brink of World War I, The White Ribbon follows a series of mysterious unsolved murders that are driving the villagers nuts. The village life is dominated by several powerful father figures – particularly a cruel doctor and a dour minister who is a monstrous father – who fail to live up to the virtue of their profession. Haneke makes one gesture of conciliation to his audience –the courtship of a wife by the narrator, a schoolteacher re-telling the story from the distance, safety and sad perspective of the future. But that is a crumb of sunshine in an onslaught of paranoia and dread.

Like Cache, The White Ribbon sweats underneath the feeling of being watched. Even without videotape, the village is a crucible of surveillance. Children peer through windows. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. In this little Peyton Place of a town, knowing your neighbor’s business isn’t appealing. When one woman declares her desire to leave, she runs down an indictment of the village’s envy, brutality, and other very bad things. Andy Griffith, this is not.
Visually, The White Ribbon is quite impressive. It is shot on film in a stark black and white. It is a film of open gates and closing doors, creating frames within frames, alternately giving a sense of enclosure and disclosure. Captured in long takes, the camera alternates between eavesdropping gently and freezing characters in close-ups, leaving them imprisoned in their own isolation.

The White Ribbon has a weird way of seeming both like reality and like a dream. Without Haneke’s liquid filmmaking talent, without the film achieving such amazing verisimilitude, would the story seem comically over-the-top? Or is the Funny Games director entirely serious about the dire cruelty he sees in humanity? There is a disenchanting lack of sympathy found here, and little hint that Haneke knows that his concentrated mendacity isn’t the only thing there is.